Energy Department Releases Blueprint for Solar Energy's Role in a Zero-Carbon Power Grid

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On September 8, 2021, the U.S. Department of Energy released the Solar Futures Study, designed to be a comprehensive review of the role solar power will play in decarbonizing the nation's power grid. The Study, a blueprint advanced by the Biden Administration for a zero-carbon grid, shows that by 2035, solar energy has the potential to serve 40 percent of U.S. electricity needs, drive deep decarbonization of the grid, and significantly boost jobs in the energy sector. It further examines how electrification could play a role in the decarbonization of the broader energy sector through 2050.

Commenting at its release, Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm emphasized that "the study illuminates the fact that solar, our cheapest and fastest-growing source of clean energy, could produce enough electricity to power all of the homes in the U.S. by 2035 and employ as many as 1.5 million people in the process."

The Study builds on analyses and modeling undertaken by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. It further includes a cost benefit analysis which concludes that the reduced carbon emission benefit of electrification will outweigh the cost of a clean energy transition, particularly in light of data showing that the actual cost of solar technologies is increasingly affordable.

However, the specific steps to implement certain scenarios considered in the Study will require concerted policy efforts by federal and state regulators as well as further advances in solar, wind, and other clean energy-related technologies. The Solar Futures Study uses power-sector models to examine three core scenarios: Reference, Decarbonization, and Decarbonization with Electrification.

The "Reference" scenario offers a framework for a "business-as-usual" future, based on existing state and federal clean energy policies without new policies or requirements to decarbonize the grid. The "Decarbonization" scenario assumes policies drive a 95 percent reduction (from 2005 levels) by 2035 in carbon dioxide emissions resulting from use of the U.S. power grid, and a 100 percent reduction by 2050 (i.e., reduction to 2005 levels).

The "Decarbonization with Electrification" scenario includes large-scale electrification of end uses in the construction, transportation, and industrial sectors. This scenario reflects increased demand for electricity in future years but also greater benefits associated with carbon reductions across the U.S. economy.

Some other key findings in the Study include:

  • Even under the Reference scenario (without a concerted effort to implement additional decarbonization policies), installed solar capacity is projected to increase by nearly a factor of 7 by 2050, with grid carbon emissions to decline by 45 percent by 2035 and 61 percent by 2050, relative to 2005 levels.
  • By 2035, the Decarbonization and Decarbonization with Electrification scenarios show cumulative solar deployment of 760–1,000 GW, serving 37 percent–42 percent of electricity demand, with the remainder met largely by other zero-carbon resources, including wind (36 percent), nuclear (11percent–13 percent), hydroelectric (5 percent–6 percent), and biopower/geothermal (1 percent).
  • New technologies—reduction in the costs of solar and wind resources, as well as enhancement of benefits provided by energy storage, load flexibility, generation flexibility, and inverter-based resource capabilities for grid services—are critical to achieving the Biden Administration's decarbonization goals.
  • The Study modeling shows that solar will employ 500,000 to 1.5 million people across the country by 2035 and that the proposed clean energy transition will generate around 3 million jobs overall across technologies.
  • Although the Decarbonization and Decarbonization with Electrification scenarios require substantial capital investments and other power system costs, the Study finds that those costs are more than offset not only by reduced fuel expenditures for non-renewable generation but also by avoided climate damages and improved air quality resulting in estimated societal savings of $1.1 trillion to $1.7 trillion.

The full text of the Solar Futures Study as well as interactive illustrations of analyses in the Study can be found here.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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